Protests in Santa Cruz de la Sierra, Bolivia, threaten to hamper an already struggling economy. A city-wide shutdown occurred on August 8, 2022, over the government’s decision to postpone the 2022 decennial census until 2024. On one hand, Santa Cruz’s legislators believe that delaying the census is an attempt to deny the municipality more political representation as its population has ballooned in the previous three decades. Santa Cruz’s leadership in the battle for the census reinforces the city’s trend of opposition toward the ruling government (Movimiento al Socialismo), but also its power as the economic center of Bolivia.
By strongly opposing itself to the rule of Movimiento al Socialismo, Santa Cruz’s situation shows the fragility of the rule of law in Bolivia. The United Nations highlights that rule of law plays an integral role in the development of countries and the reduction of poverty as poverty often arises from “disempowerment, exclusion and discrimination.” The rule of law upholds the voices of the people, safeguards democracy and ensures the protection of human rights.
A History of Protests
Santa Cruz’s governor Luis Camacho announced that the capital of the municipality could freeze for 48 hours starting August 8 until President Luis Arce agreed to discuss an earlier census date. As the largest city in Bolivia and its economic center, estimates indicate that each day of the shutdown will equate to an economic loss of $33 million, leading to accusations of crippling the economy for political gain. Alongside the economic problems caused by the protest, there have been reports of violence from those in favor and against the shutdown, with mayor Jhonny Fernández’s home coming under attack.
This is not a temporary issue either. Santa Cruz has undergone numerous shutdowns in previous years, dating all the way back to the nationwide shutdown in 2019 over ex-President Evo Morales’ alleged fraudulent election victory. As recently as July 2022, protestors spoke out against Movimiento al Socialismo’s imprisonment of many opposition members. Among the imprisoned is former President Jeanine Añez whose interim presidency was upheld by the Bolivian Constitutional Court prior to her condemnation.
Hope for Resolution
Although these incidents point to the fragility of the rule of law in Bolivia, there is strong hope for a resolution to the conflict. President Arce agreed to revisit the 2023 census’ date with delegates from Santa Cruz, an important step toward reconciliation between Movimiento al Socialismo and Santa Cruz’s opposition government. Another promising feature of the shutdown is that despite sporadic violence, both the central government and Santa Cruz’s mayor have called for a peaceful resolution with dialogue from all sides.
Additionally, foreign nonprofits, governments and organizations form an active part of the efforts to strengthen Bolivia’s fragile political situation. In 2019, the Organization of American States and the European Union reviewed Bolivia’s election results, reporting possible instances of electoral fraud. In 2020, with oversight once again, Bolivia held an election with a fair democratic process in place.
To safeguard democracy and the rule of law, the International Republican Institute works to strengthen “democracy and freedom” and “guide politicians to be responsive to citizens” while “[motivating] people to engage in the political process.” In Bolivia specifically, the IRI aims to “support free and fair elections, democratic institutions and local government, civil society capacity building, and efforts to promote peacebuilding and reconciliation.”
In the Declaration of the High-level Meeting on the Rule of Law, states stressed that “the rule of law at the national and international levels is essential for sustained and inclusive economic growth, sustainable development, the eradication of poverty and hunger and the full realization of all human rights and fundamental freedoms, including the right to development, all of which in turn reinforce the rule of law.”
Ultimately, fragility remains a key issue for the rule of law in Bolivia, but both local and federal governments are showing a desire to prevent violence and enforce institutional authority. The rejections of violence by Governor Camacho and President Arce indicate that although there are differences between the states and the Bolivian government, there is also a willingness to bring issues like the census to an amicable resolution to strengthen the rule of law in Bolivia.
– Samuel Bowles